Stephen Fry

Stephen Fry on Public Libraries

Planet Word, BBC 2, Episode 4.  First broadcast Sunday 16th October 2011, 39.20 minutes to 46:00 minutes

Fry – There were more and more books.  But what to do with them? Build more libraries?

Almost everything I am, I owe to libraries. When I was a child there were no great libraries around.

Libraries still for me have this extraordinary charge when I get in one; I feel this buzz, it is almost sexual.  Behind these bound copies are voices, people murmuring to you, seducing you, dragging you into their world.  I suppose if I have one campaign I can really get behind it is saving libraries.  Everyone surely has the right to access the voices of the past.

Screenshot of Oxford University Library – The Bodleian

But these days the library has another challenge, how to stay relevant in a digital age.  While the internet has many mundane uses, from booking holidays to doing our weekly grocery shop it also has a colossal impact on the way we consume words and knowledge.   We can access almost instantaneously an enormous repository of information of a mere click of a button or a swipe of a finger.

Interview with Richard Ovenden, Keeper of Special Collections:

What really marks a great library out is how the collections are used, how access is provided and the kind of environments, both physical and virtual, that you are able to provide scholars and the whole interested public with access to information.  This great archive that we are responsible for and the whole library world is collectively responsible for, it really needs to be used to be meaningful.

Fry – Will you move in the next 100 years away from receiving atomic matter?

Ovenden: That process has already begun, and it is really driven by the publishers, there are many publishers that only publish electronically.  So we have to do digital preservation now.

Fry – So you have library shelves but you also have racks of servers?

Ovenden: We certainly do, and so we also have staff whose job it is to keep stuff safe, to keep the bits alive so that scholars in 400 years time will be able to access the information that is being produced now just as we are able to access the information printed by the great scholars.

Fry – Yes, it is a different expertise.

We are producing and consuming more and more words in a digital form.  But do our technological advances mean that the printed version of the book will become as moribund clay Kunai form tablet.

Interview with Prof Robert Darnton, Director of Harvard Library University

Prof Robert Darnton, Director of Harvard Library University is an expert on the history of books

Darnton: I have been invited to so many conferences on the ‘death of the book’, that I am convinced that it is very much alive and we have statistics to prove it.  Each year more books are produced than the previous year, there was a dip during the recession, but next year there will be 1 million new titles produced worldwide and yet at the same time more digital works are coming out and the future is decidedly digital.  I think we are living in a time of transition which the two media coexists, which is what I think makes it so exciting.

Fry – And they will continue to coexist?

Darnton: Well one thing we have learnt in the history of books, which is a huge expanding field, that one medium does not displace another.  So of course as you know, the radio did not displace the newspaper, the television did not kill the radio and the internet did not destroy television and so on.  So I think actually what is happening now is the electronic means of communication, all kinds of hand held devices, which people reads books are actually increasing the sales of ordinary printed books.

Fry – Or the same numbers of people are reading more? One or the other?

Darnton: I think both. That I can’t absolutely prove, however it is certain I think that a lot of people use hand held electronic devices for one kind of reading and the use codex for another kind of reading and that the interest of the availability of books online is getting people more excited about reading in general, I think it is fascinating moment when reading itself if undergoing a change.

Fry: I like to have a foot in both camps, the shiny new digital world of technology and the traditional path to knowledge which is embodied by the library.  I do hope that libraries survive; they are more than just buildings in the same way books are more than just print and paper.

As the poet, philosopher and political theorist John Milton said books are not absolute dead things they do contain a potency of life ‘he who destroys a book kills reason itself’.  As we all know one of the first acts of a tyrant is to destroy a library and to burn books, they want to control literature and the elitists want to horde the power and the knowledge that is contained in books.   But digital words cannot be burned and myriad connections of the web versions make online information mercurial.

Transcription courtesy of Fiona Leslie, OCLC (UK) Ltd

  • #1 written by Anne Keighley
    about 11 years ago

    hi all,
    we have set up a Friends of haughton green library support group in order to save our library from closure we have read with great sadness about the case in Doncaster and we are asking the Labour controlled Tameside MBC to help us by not closing our vital community resource even though we are referred to as deprived!
    We are in a small tight knit community with few resources and residents who do not have access to the internet, we have set up a Facebook and twitter campaign and have a petition and a lobby of our MP on You Tube=please help us if you can.
    We would ask Stephen fry to support our campaign if he can and raise this as soon as possible if we lose our library now then what next? this is our future for the next generation and if it is lost can never be returned, how sad….anne keighley.

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